Authors: Carla Kelly
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand
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First Printing. December. 1994 10 987654 3 2 1
Copyright © Carla Kelly, 1994
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With love to Mary Ruth, Sarah, Liz, Sandhya, and Jyoti, daughters and nieces
Who does not tremble when he considers how to deal with a wife?
Roxanna Drew was not a lady to trespass on anyone's property, even if the landlord was out of the country, but she had a blister on her foot, and the grass in Moreland Park looked so inviting. If she took off her shoes and stockings, she could cross that field barefooted and cut three miles off her return route.
"This is the folly of wearing new shoes," she said out loud as she sat on a log at the edge of the woods. She rubbed her heel and contemplated the gentle river of grass that flowed around well-spaced boulders and emptied into a larger meadow. She snapped open the watch that was pinned to the front of her dress. Seven o'clock in the morning. Helen and Felicity would still be asleep, curled up next to each other, and Meggie Watson would be lying awake and thinking about putting on water for tea.
She sniffed the breeze, enjoying the scent of wild roses still blooming into September. Somewhere behind the fragrance was the sharp odor of the sea. She closed
her eyes, thinking of the sand dunes, and how wonderful it would be to walk barefoot there. Through the dismal spring and uncertain summer, Helen had wanted to visit the ocean at Scarborough. Perhaps next summer would be soon enough. Winter was coming, and with it, decisions enough to push a seaside visit into the background again.
She took off her shoes and stockings and stretched her toes in the dewy grass. I am not the prodigious walker I once was, she thought as she made no move to rise from her comfortable perch. She smiled to herself—grateful she had reached the point where she could smile about it—and thought of her husband, the dedicated walker. When she was expecting their first baby, he had gently bullied her into walking with him as he made the rounds of his parish. Even when she was awkward with child, he continued to insist on her company. He only smiled when she grumbled about delivering the baby under a hedgerow on one of the miles of country lanes, and was there at her side when Helen made her ladylike appearance in their own bed.
Roxanna leaned forward and rested her chin in her hands. "You were right as always, dear Anthony," she said. Her eyes misted over, but the moment passed quicker than it would have in April or May, when the ground was still raw over his grave.
They had continued to walk together through her next pregnancy, and on until the morning when he sat her down under a distant tree and told her the doctor's suspicions. She knew she would never forget the calm way he looked at her and said, "And if he is right, my dear, he doubts I will see another summer."
He lived another summer, and then another one, but it was from his sickbed that he watched their second daughter, Felicity, take her first steps. He was much thinner by the time Felicity called him Papa and crawled up on the bed to sit beside him. He died as quietly as he had lived, when Felicity was almost four and Helen six, an astonishment to his doctor, who had given him less than a year.
Through a mist of pain that was only beginning to recede now, - Roxanna thought of the doctor's surprise at the vicar's ability to hold off death so long. None of you suspected what a tenacious man he was, she thought as she looked at the meadow stretching before her. You saw only a quiet, self-effacing man, never strong, but lit from within by a flame so difficult to extinguish. We Drew ladies took such good care of him. And there is that matter of constant prayer, which most of you regard as sheer foolishness in this age of reason.
Throughout that long, dismal winter as she watched Anthony fade before her eyes and gradually melt away, she promised herself that she would take long walks again, and breathe other air than sickroom air. When he finally breathed his last in her arms, her relief equally balanced her grief. It was time for Anthony Drew, vicar of Whitcomb parish, to quit this life and let his beloved wife see if she cared to go on living without him.
She had taken short walks at first, a mile or two here or there, not far from the village of Whitcomb. Invariably some parishioner in gig or cart would stop and insist that she ride to her destination. Roxanna had not the heart to tell them she had no destination, not really, so she invented enough little errands that filled her drawers with unnecessary notions from the cloth merchants, and more bread than they could eat from Whitcomb's bakeries.
A glance at her dwindling resources convinced her that she had better begin walking across fields, where the danger was reduced of encountering well-wishers and more sympathy than she needed. In rain or shine, she would look in on her sleeping daughters and then walk until she was pleasantly tired. She wore out one pair of walking shoes and started on another, which brought her back to her current difficulty. There was a definite blister on her heel. "New shoes are such a trial," she murmured, and stood up.
She had walked farther than usual, but she knew whose land she trespassed on. It was one of the numerous estates of Colonel Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn, currently on occupation duty in Belgium. Anthony had always made it a point to know something of his parishioners, even those far distant, or those who never attended services, even when they were in the vicinity.
Lord Winn fit both categories. She remembered mailing a Christmas note to Lord Winn in Brussels, begun in Anthony's spidery handwriting and finished in her own firm script. She knew Lord Winn was a colonel of one of the more distinguished Yorkshire regiments. There was more, of course, but she never repeated scandal, and did not think of it. either, beyond a sad shake of her head. "For who of us has not fallen short of the mark?" Anthony would say, and she could only agree.
She started across the field, her eyes on the larger, more distant meadow, ringed about with trees and noisy with birds throwing back their challenge to autumn and shortening days. During the long months of Anthony's illness and death, she sometimes wondered if the Lord was scourging her for thoughtless years of overmuch laughter and quick temper. All emotion had been drained from her now. She lived life on one plane only, and sometimes wondered what it would be like to laugh until her sides ached, or even get really angry. It seemed impossible.
But I know what it is to worry, she thought as she strolled along, breathing in the fragrance of fields ready for harvest. Where are my girls and I to go? And how soon can we get there?
She knew from the day she buried Anthony in the parish cemetery that his older brother Marshall, Lord Whitcomb, would be wanting to give the parish living to another vicar. Until yesterday, Lord Whitcomb had not even spoken to her about the matter, and she was grateful for his unexpected forbearance. He had given her almost six months to collect her shattered thoughts and ruined dreams, and put them away for safekeeping.
His visit yesterday had not been a surprise. He sent a note that he was coming to discuss personal matters. Meggie Watson, Marshall, and Anthony's old nursemaid reminded her little charges that she had promised them a visit to the creek behind the vicarage, where Helen could bait a hook in imitation of her father, and Felicity could churn up the water farther downstream as she searched for pebbles.
Roxanna frowned and sat down on one of the boulders. All things considered, perhaps it would have been better for the girls to have run in and out of the parlor during Lord Whitcomb's visit. "Roxanna Drew, you have earned your suspicions," she told herself out loud, then looked around, afraid the wind would carry her words too far. No one was in sight, not even a cow or horse, so she relaxed again, going so far as to hitch herself up on the boulder and sit cross-legged. She knew it was undignified, especially for a woman dressed in black, but she had more on her mind than decorum.
"I have decided to give this living to Thomas Winegar," her brother-in-law told her over tea and biscuits of her own making.
She nodded, pleased. Mr. Winegar, newly released from Cambridge and ordained, had been filling in during the last year of Anthony's life, even though he had duties of his own of a subordinate nature at nearby St. Catherine's. And hadn't he said something about a new wife soon? Roxanna knew that the future Mrs. Winegar would be as satisfied with her surroundings as the Drews had always been.
"This brings us to you, Roxanna," Lord Whitcomb had said next, as he set down his cup and brushed the crumbs from his impeccable waistcoat.
"I had thought to find a small place in the village," she replied.
Roxanna shivered and then looked around her in surprise. The sun was shining down on her particular boulder, warming her shoulders. Perhaps the chill came from within. Perhaps she did not want to think about Lord Whitcomb.
He had seemed shocked, angry almost, that she would consider such an independent step, reminding her that he had promised Anthony on his deathbed that he would take care of her and the little ones. "I will not hear of such a thing, Roxanna," he said, looking into her eyes and moving closer on the sofa. "You will come to us at Whitcomb."
"I think not, Marshall," she had replied gently. "I do not believe Lady Whitcomb would enjoy my little Indians running about the place, not with her nervous temperament."
There wasn't any need to add that Agnes Drew, Lady Whitcomb, had never reconciled herself to her brother-in-law's somewhat eccentric choice of a wife. On more than one occasion, Roxanna had overheard her to say that "Pretty is as pretty does, but why in a vicarage?" And there was no distinguished family pedigree
render even a pretty face acceptable. "Better a stout dowry in a vicarage than a trim ankle," had been Lady Whitcomb's remarks upon that subject, spoken, as were all her jibes, just loud enough to be overheard. But this was nothing that Lord Whitcomb had probably not already heard late at night in his own bedroom, when husbands and wives discuss their relatives and laughed over them.
Her unexpected resistance, after years of gentle obedience to his brother, seemed to set off Lord Whitcomb. He got to his feet and paced back and forth in front of the window as she stared at him and wondered at his agitation.
"Roxanna, my wife's nerves are her best friends," he had admitted finally, stopping in front of her. He sat beside her again, closer this time, his knee nearly touching hers. "They are her excuse for neglect of all marital duty." Shocked, she moved away slightly, hoping he would not follow, and wishing suddenly that Meggie would return from the creek.
To his credit, Lord Whitcomb picked his words with great care, even as he inched closer on the sofa. "I was thinking that we might consider a special arrangement, Roxanna," he said, his voice quite soft.
It was not in her nature to be suspicious, she thought as she slid down from the slowly warming boulder and continued at a more rapid stride across the field, unable to sit still at her memory of yesterday's searing interview.
"Marshall?" she had asked. "Whatever do you mean?"
He only moved closer until their knees were touching again, and she could not slide any farther away on the sofa. "I know you have been missing the comfort of a husband for several years at least," he had told her, his voice conversational, as though they chatted about the price of silk or the prospect of a good harvest. "I can provide that special comfort, and a good roof over your head, Roxanna." His hand was on her knee then. "And if there was a son, why, that would be more than Agnes has ever grudged me. No one would ever need to know that it was not hers."
Roxanna stopped in the middle of the field. She could not remember what had happened next, beyond the fact that in only a matter of seconds, Lord Whitcomb was standing in the doorway, his palm against his reddened cheek, his hat in his hand. "I do not think you fully appreciate your situation," was his only comment as he mounted his horse and galloped away.
Later in her room, as she retched into the washbasin and then tried unsuccessfully to pour herself a glass of water with shaking hands, she reflected on his words. She knew with painful clarity that he controlled whatever stipend she would receive as Anthony's relict. She also knew that her parents were dead and her brothers both in Bombay with the East India Tea Company. She could also assure herself that these circumstances suddenly rendered her even more vulnerable than Anthony's most bereft parishioner.
She hurried faster, grateful at least that they were newly into the quarter, and she still retained a substantial amount of her stipend. If she could find a place to live, and live cheaply, they could probably stretch it to December. Out of wounded vanity. Lord Whitcomb would probably reduce her stipend; surely he dared not eliminate it entirely.
She sighed. So many worries, and now this one, an anxiety so dreadful that she could only question if she had heard Lord Whitcomb right yesterday. Roxanna paused in the field, wondering if at any time in the last three years of Anthony's illness she had ever indicated her longings for marital comfort to Lord Whitcomb. Surely not. No matter how much she yearned for Anthony's love, she had never done anything to make her brother-in-law suppose she was that desperate.
Even if I am, she thought, and then tried to push away that imp from her mind. She forced herself to face the reality that more than once at night she had awakened beside her slowly dying husband and wished he was still capable of making love to her. But I never gave any hint to Lord Whitcomb, she thought. I would never.
Her uneasy reflections took her into the larger meadow, where she could see a dairy herd grazing. As she passed, the Ayrshires looked up at her with that curiosity typical of the breed. Some started toward her. She smiled to herself and hurried across the field, looking back to laugh out loud. Helen would be amused to see a string of spotted cows all following single file in her wake, intent upon knowing her mother's business.